The Apocalypse Tapestry

Angers in Western France, is a place I ended up almost accidentally. I was staying nearby in Saumur, due to its proximity to Fontevraud Abbey, which I’ve written about in detail here. I was looking for places in visit in the vicinity to which I could do day trips by train. I came across Angers, and some quick research revealed that not only did it have a castle that had been home to the Dukes of Anjou, it also had a cathedral with a surviving 12th century nave. You can see both below

I have written in more detail about Angers Castle before, and you can find that post here.

A little more digging and I discovered the Apocalypse Tapestry, which will be the feature of this post.

The Tapestry is surprisingly not that well known, and in the current climate it felt like an appropriate topic to write about.

The Tapestry was commissioned by Louis I Duke of Anjou in 1375. It was woven in the workshops of Nicholas Bataille, a famous Paris weaver, from drawings undertaken by Hennequin of Bruges, who was a court painter for Charles V of France. Charles V of France was Louis’ older brother. The Tapestry depicts the story of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John. Though it is most likely that the images were taken from traditional apocalypse iconography, they still narrate the main points of the narrative of the Book of the Revelation.

It is the largest medieval tapestry known to exist, measuring 140 m when completed and consisting of 90 individual panels (not all have survived). Its subject was an indication of the volatile world of late 14th century France. The Hundred Years War was ravaging the country, in fact parts of the Tapestry can be read as depictions of the physical brutality of The Hundred Years War, which saw mercenary bands as well as organised armies swarming across France. The black death was also rampant, killing millions across Europe. It was a time of immense change and upheaval, which might be why Louis decided on the unusual subject of the Book of Revelation for his commissioned piece. There are a number ways it could be read, either as a concept of the end of the world, or because, although it is bleak, ultimately the Book of Revelation depicts a black and white certainty, and in an odd way it has a happy ending with the faithful rising to Heaven. Essentially it provides certainty in unpredictable times.

The Tapestry certainly depicts the apocalypse in visceral detail. I didn’t photograph the entirety of the Tapestry, but you can get an idea of the intricacy of the work and just how evocative the images are.

The Fourth Horseman: Death

The Tapestry was also about promoting Louis’ family. Anjou heraldry can be seen throughout as well as the fleur-de-lis of France. This tapestry was definitely a status symbol as well as an attempt to bring some meaning to an uncertain world.

The Tapestry was probably completed in 1382, meaning it took 7 years to create. It’s completely woven from wool. With a tapestry this complex one master weaver working dawn to dusk everyday (except for Sunday of course) could weave just under a square metre a month. The Tapestry had six sections measuring almost 24 metres by 6 metres. The width comes from the width of the looms on which they were woven. Each section depicted 14 scenes with a final section finishing off with 6 scenes. This gives you an idea of the immensity of the Tapestry.

No one is entirely sure how the Tapestry was meant to be displayed, but it was probably made to be viewed from both sides and may have been hung from moveable panels, placing the viewer in the centre.

Regardless of how it was supposed to be hung originally it is likely that it didn’t see much use for Duke Louis because he died in 1384, only two years after the Tapestry was most likely finished. It stayed in the Anjou family, coming out for special occasions, such as the wedding of Louis’ son Louis II to Yolande of Aragon at Arles in 1400, but most likely it was not generally on display. It was given to Angers Cathedral at the end of the 15th century.

Today the surviving tapestry is displayed in a gallery that was purpose built in 1954 in the grounds of Angers Castle. The fact that any of it survives at all is somewhat of a miracle, as during the French Revolution the panels were cut up and used for floor mats and blankets for horses. This wasn’t uncommon as during this period medieval tapestries were even sometimes melted down for any gold thread they contained. The Bayeux Tapestry came close to a similarly ignominious fate, you can find out more about the Bayeux Tapestry here.

Thankfully canons rescued the pieces and 75 panels were able to restored.

The Tapestry is a truly remarkable survival from the medieval period and is a really interesting insight into a time of incredible, fear, uncertainty and upheaval, as well as the medieval mindset a bit more generally. If nothing else it is a beautiful artefact that tells a fascinating story.

It was also the inspiration for another tapestry held in Angers. This one is displayed in the Hospital of Saint- Jean which is a well preserved 12th century hospital, about a half hour walk from the Castle, (which I know because I did it too fast, in hot weather, because I had a train to catch, and ended up with blisters and heatstroke)

I will probably write more about the hospital at a later date, but for now I wanted to touch on the Tapestry displayed here. It is the work of artist Jean Lurcat. The work was conceived as a modern version of the Apocalypse Tapestry, depicting a modern version of the apocalypse. Work began in 1957 and after the artist died in the late 1960s Angers acquired the tapestries from his wife. The photos I have give an overall view, but not of the individual ten panels. For not photographing the individual panels, I blame a mad rush to make the last train of the day, blisters and the beginning of heat stroke.

The panels depict:

The Grand Threat (the atomic bomb), The Man of Hiroshima, The Mass Grave, The End of Everything, Man in Glory and Peace, Water and Fire, Champagne and the Conquest of Space. You can see the panels in more detail here.

So that is the story of the Apocalypse Tapestry and its modern cousin both held in Angers, a city it is absolutely worth visiting. I want to finish this post with the souvenir I acquired from my visit. It’s a cushion from the Apocalypse Tapestry with the eternal fires of hell.

References

Site vist 2012

Angers Castle Brochures

Angers Cathedral Brochures

Le Chant du Monde Brochure

The Family Trees of the Kings of France- Jean-Paul Gisserot

Parks and Chateaux of France

http://www.chateau-angers.fr/en/Explore/History-of-the-monument

http://www.mheu.org/en/timeline/apocalypse-tapestry.htm

https://www.briottieres.com/en/activities/apocalypse-tapestry/

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/apr/17/the-forgotten-french-tapestry-with-lessons-for-our-apocalyptic-times

http://lotoisdumonde.fr/documents/lurcat/lurcat.html

The Bible

All the photos are mine

3 thoughts on “The Apocalypse Tapestry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s